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Friday 10 – Monday 13 June 2016

"I alone hold the key to this wild spectacle"

From Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations

Inspired by the hyper-sensual surrealism of Rimbaud’s poetry set in Britten’s song cycle Les Illuminations, director Struan Leslie creates a newly-commissioned staging fusing music and contemporary circus performance.

‘I have long wanted to create a theatre work with this music’, says Leslie. ‘Now I have found the means to do it. Theatre or dance were always too limited a vocabulary to convey this vivid world. Circus is the key to unlock it.’

Britten’s voluptuous musical settings take flight on the back of Rimbaud’s extraordinarily evocative verse, a spectacle of extremes, a world of febrile fantasy, a parade of grotesques and lurid, erotic imagery.

Production photos and videos

photographer: Mark Allan


Creating Illuminations

“There’s a danger that when you combine art-forms they all get watered down,” he says. “That’s not the case here. We’re trying to find a language through which the music and the skills are working in tune.”

Struan Leslie and trapeze artist Eric McGill spoke to Sarah Hemming for the Financial Times.


Watch director Struan explain why circus suits Illuminations and see some of the moves that are being devised by the group of circus performers.

Watch Struan Leslie and designer Gary McCann discuss the set and the staging of Illuminations.

Watch Struan Leslie on a visit to the Britten archive at The Red House to learn more about how Britten composed his song cycle ‘Les Illuminations’ from Rimbaud’s poetry.

Rehearsal photos



‘Never less than spectacular’
★★★★ Hannah Nepil, Financial Times, 12 June 2016

‘a ravishing night of music and physical theatre’
★★★★ Helen Wallace, The Arts Desk, 11 June 2016

‘Les Illuminations….. a setting of poems by Artur Ribaud which conjure weird nocturnal visions of “Savage parades”, “Cortèges of Queen Mabs”, and wild “Bacchantes of the suburbs”. Director Struan Leslie brought these visions to life with the aid of nine circus performers and a fascinating set from Gary McCann…… beyond praise’
★★★★ Ivan Hewett, The Telegraph, 11 June 2016

‘Tynan was also excellent, delivering Britten’s settings with great incisiveness and carrying off with panache what the staging required of her, which included being lifted aloft herself at the end.’
★★★★ Andrew Clements, The Guardian, 12 June 2016

‘If daring and originality mark out great festivals, Aldeburgh has hit the jackpot with its opening production.’
★★★★ Richard Morrison, The Times, 13 June 2016

‘The aerial artistry is stunning. As the music dips and moves, the choreography does also. It is a feast to watch’
Jackie Montague, EADT, 22 June 2016

‘Circus seems the perfect mode for expressing Britten’s setting of Rimbaud’s strange, nonsensical and psychedelic poetry, evoking intense atmosphere without plot, and above all a sense of sprightly play and fun which encouraged the audience to engage, applaud and even giggle. We see classical music at its accessible best when it is presented with such courage, energy and humour.’
‘McCann’s costumes, alternating between the sinuous and the sculptural, accentuate the rhythm and reach of each dancer’s movements, whether creating organic shapes on the ground or sweeping patterns in the air on ribbons, a large metal ring or a trapeze. While the circus performers are all dressed in monochrome, a range of elaborate and shadowy patterns on their costumes, combined with a wide array of visual textues from nylon to fur, keeps them visually lush….. this was an exceptional evening’
★★★★★ Charlotte Valori, Bachtrack, 13 June 2016

‘Leslie’s remarkable melding of string orchestra with expressive circus will enchant you… it is tremendous. an odd, wild, engrossing 75 minutes’
★★★★★ Libby Purves, TheatreCat.com, 10 June 2016

’75 minutes of arresting and breathtaking activity’
Gareth Jones, EADT, 13 June 2016


Britten Young Apollo, Op.16 8’
Claude Debussy arr. Tognetti String Quartet in G minor, Op.10 26’
John Adams Shaker Loops 1. Shaking and Trembling 9’
Britten Reveille for violin and piano 5’
Britten Les Illuminations, Op.18 21’

Performers & creative team

Struan Leslie director
Gary McCann set and costume designer
Chris Davey lighting designer
Sarah Tynan soprano
An ensemble of international circus performers
Nicholas Collon conductor
Aurora Orchestra

Supported by The Michael Guest Charitable Foundation, Michael & Patty Hopkins, Barry Ife, Peter & Veronica Lofthouse and Lindsay & Sarah Tomlinson.

With grateful thanks to the National Centre for Circus Arts.

Young Apollo & Reveille performed by arrangement with Faber Music Ltd, London.

Shaker Loops performed by arrangement with Chester Music Limited trading as G Schirmer Limited on behalf of Associated Music Publishers Inc.

Les Illuminations, music by Benjamin Britten and text by Arthur Rimbaud, given by permission of Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers Limited.